Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Moroni Olsen: Class Act
 


Moroni Olsen: Class Act

By: Ardis E. Parshall - July 26, 2009

“Mirror, mirror on the wall …” That fairy tale incantation in Disney’s 1937 feature “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” summoned magical responses delivered in the mirror’s memorable baritone voice, a voice not identified by the film’s credits.

“Looks like we’ll have to send someone down –– a lot of people are asking for help for a man named George Bailey.” Another voice from an unseen speaker, this one the angel in Frank Capra’s 1946 “It’s a Wonderful Life,” instructing guardian angel Clarence on his assignment to save the life of the ordinary man who had always put everyone else’s needs before his own.

The man behind both the mirror and the angel was Moroni Olsen, a native of Utah and a faithful Latter-day Saint.

Born in Ogden in 1889, Olsen graduated from Weber Stake Academy, now Weber State University. Although he acted in church theatricals, he never appeared in a high school play – Weber Academy had no drama coach. After his graduation, Olsen joined the Weber Alumni Dramatic Association and threw his support behind Weber’s new English teacher, a Miss Cleghorn, and her efforts to bring drama to Weber.

Olsen went on to the University of Utah where he studied drama and elocution under Maud May Babcock, the first woman on the U’s faculty, founder of its speech and physical education department, and legendary developer of its theater program. The voice training Olsen received under Babcock equipped him for the Broadway stage and for Hollywood. Olsen never forgot either of his schools – after establishing a solid position for himself at the national dramatic level, he returned to Utah time and time again to perform in benefits for Weber and the University of Utah.

In September 1923, following study and minor performances in the east – and a stint in the Navy selling war bonds during World War I – Olsen organized The Moroni Olsen Players, drawing from the surprisingly large pool of semi-professional acting talent of Ogden. Olsen directed and coached his players, handled scenery, staging, and choreography, and attended to all the other details of a fledgling repertory company.

The Players put on at least five productions at Ogden’s Orpheum Theater during their first season, and by December they hit the road, playing a circuit that reached from Salt Lake City to Washington State. The Seattle Daily Times praised their performance of George Bernard Shaw’s Candida as “admirable,” noting its reception “with unmistakable enthusiasm by a large audience.” The Tacoma News-Tribune called their production “overwhelming in its success … there were many curtain calls and much spontaneous applause.” Olsen continued his work with his Players for 8 seasons.

Hollywood called in 1934, and Olsen moved to Los Angeles. His first movie role was Porthos in “The Three Musketeers,” followed by Buffalo Bill in Barbara Stanwyck’s “Annie Oakley.” Role after role followed, keeping Olsen busy throughout the 1930s and 1940s. His role as Congressman Stone in 1949’s “Command Decision” brought him a nomination for best supporting actor Oscar.

For several years, Olsen directed the “Pilgrimage Play,” Hollywood’s great passion play that predated the arrival of motion pictures. In 1936, the devout Mormon played religious reformer John Knox opposite Helen Hayes in “Mary of Scotland.” His reputation as a movie actor no doubt accounted for at least a part of his popularity as a teacher of Bible studies to the young people of the Beverly Hills Ward.

Television discovered Olsen in the early 1950s, and he played a series of heavies, his menacing stare and deep voice bringing a convincing element of danger to his roles. On the lighter side, he appeared in one episode of “I Love Lucy” as a judge trying to understand the explanations of a scatter-brained Lucy Ricardo.

Olsen’s last visit to Utah occurred in July 1954, when he spent several days in Ogden updating staging for the pioneer musical “All Faces West,” in which Igor Gorin, world renowned operatic baritone, reprised his role of Brigham Young. He also narrated a pageant in the Salt Lake Tabernacle, featuring the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and San Francisco opera soloist Carl Palangi. Olsen died just before Thanksgiving that year, in Hollywood. Olsen, who had never married, was survived only by a nephew, Edward Olsen of Los Angeles, who brought his body home to Ogden for burial.



33 Comments »

  1. Ardis:

    Thanks for such a great write-up on Moroni Olsen. Having grown up in southern California, I can say he had a great reputation, although he was mostly before my time. Even so, I was always on the watch for him in reruns on TV. I did not know he taught in the Beverly Hills ward. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have just one film of him teaching a lesson?

    Comment by S.Faux — July 26, 2009 @ 8:09 am

  2. Ah, yes! Something with a good, dramatic scripture story in it, whether hero or villain!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 26, 2009 @ 8:16 am

  3. Excellent write-up, Ardis. Thanks.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 26, 2009 @ 10:54 am

  4. This is another great, mostly unknown story. Keep them coming.

    Comment by Maurine — July 26, 2009 @ 5:21 pm

  5. I give it a “thumbs up.”

    Comment by Steve C. — July 26, 2009 @ 6:07 pm

  6. My favorite role of his was as the father of the groom opposite Spencer Tracy’s father of the bride in “Father of the Bride” and its sequel, “Father’s Little Dividend.”

    Comment by manaen — July 26, 2009 @ 6:23 pm

  7. President David O. McKay, who was also from the Ogden area talked at Olsen’s funeral. He compared him to George Washington, who was the “Father of Our County” and yet had no children of his own. He said that Olsen was too involved in his career to marry.
    Olsen was very much involved in the Church which is very difficult for single men to do today. We do have some historical men that were able to do it very nicely: Evan Stephens writer of hymns and director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir; John Park, president of the University of Utah and George John Taylor, president John Taylor’s oldest child and editor of the original Keepapitchinin.

    Comment by Jeff Johnson — July 28, 2009 @ 10:46 am

  8. I’ve seen this man in movies and noticed that his name was linked to the LDS church, as I’m a member also.So I went online and found this site.Thanks for the interesting article on such a fine actor and talent.I think it would be nice and proper if his name was added to the credits of Disney’s “Snow White & the 7 Dwarfs”.

    Comment by G.P.Weatherford — August 20, 2009 @ 2:33 pm

  9. Me, too, G.P.

    Welcome to Keepa — I hope you’ll come back, if you have any interest in Mormon history.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 20, 2009 @ 2:49 pm

  10. I was just starting the film “Notorious” when I saw the name “Moroni Olsen” flash across the screen – I had to pause it and find out if he was Mormon! I should have known that Keepapitchinin would be one of the top results for this piece of Mormon history! Thanks for the write-up…now I’ll get back to the movie!

    Comment by LT — April 9, 2010 @ 1:15 pm

  11. Thanks for taking the time to say that, LT. You made my day.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 9, 2010 @ 1:40 pm

  12. I started watching The Strange Woman, starring Hedy Lamarr, when I saw the name Moroni Olsen. I thought IMDb or Wikipedia would answer my questions about what seemed to me an obvious name of a LDS member. They didn’t. Thanks for a web site that gives information not readily available elsewhere. I’m anxious to see the movie Brigham Young again to see his part, as well as later convert Dean Jagger’s portrayal.

    Comment by Eric K. Taylor — November 25, 2010 @ 3:31 pm

  13. Thanks, Eric — Check in again, because if you liked this article you’d probably like a lot of the others here.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 25, 2010 @ 3:36 pm

  14. Moroni Olsen is now in imdb.com
    http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0647752/bio

    Birth name: John Willard Clawson, Jr.

    Comment by Bookslinger — November 25, 2010 @ 7:27 pm

  15. Books, I see where imdb says that, but they’re wrong, and I can’t imagine where they ever got that idea.

    Moroni Olsen was the son of Edward Arenholt Olsen and Martha Hoverholst Olsen.

    The only John Willard Clawson I’m aware of was a grandson of Brigham Young, who lived 1858-1936. JWC was a well-known artist (painter); his father, Hiram B. Clawson, was an occasional and very popular actor in the Salt Lake home productions, but I’m not aware of JWC ever having acted. He had one son only, to my knowledge, John Wesley Clawson.

    There may be a John Willard Clawson (or a pair of them, father and son) of whom I am entirely ignorant, but I do know that Moroni Olsen was born Moroni Olsen.

    I wonder who submitted that to the database, and where they got such an idea?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 25, 2010 @ 8:23 pm

  16. Also, John Willard the playwright, confused by imdb with Moroni Olsen, had completely different dates — 28 November 1885 (San Francisco) – 30 August 1942 (Los Angeles).

    I’m not aware that Moroni Olsen ever used any other name; I have no hesitation, though, in saying that he absolutely is NOT either John Willard Clawson or John Willard.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 25, 2010 @ 8:42 pm

  17. Ahhhhh…. Like as you say: “Provenance, provenance, provenance.”

    You could log in (register) to IMDB and submit a correction. Moroni might thank you for it.

    Before reading your response, I submitted a correction of spelling (Maroni to Moroni) for this item in the trivia section of his bio. For someone to spell his name “Maroni”, should have been a clue that they were clueless to start with.

    Comment by Bookslinger — November 26, 2010 @ 1:05 pm

  18. Good point for evaluation, Bookslinger.

    At the very least, I appreciate your pointing out that entry in imdb because it lets me make a big deal of it here so that Keepa readers won’t be misled.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 26, 2010 @ 1:32 pm

  19. Thankyou for pointing out he was born Olsen. The idea of him switching his first names from John Willard to Moroni makes sense (other than that he did not) but the idea of him going from Clawson to Olsen just did not compute.

    I was initially decieved, and did add edits to wikipedia that reflected that Moroni Olsen had originally been John Willard Clawson. I delted them on seeing the point that this was not the case.

    The Brigham Young Family website lists three children fro John Willard Clawson the painter. These are Willard Wesley Clawson, Louise Davenport Clawson and Consuelo Clawson. These are also the three children listed in New Family Search, although since Consuelo was born in 1909, there might be a living child between her and Louise born in 1886. OK, the likelihood of that is a little low, but it is possible.

    John Willard Clawson is the only person who shows up in new family search with that name. Since all LDS Church membership records are supposed to be there, it seems unlikely there was any other LDS John Willard Clawson born before 1900.

    Of course New Family search also lists John Willard Clawson as being the son of each of his father’s three wives, and they then list him as a child of Philip Debs and unknown, so there are odd things going on, but I have no idea how the connecting to Mornoni Olsen came about.

    Comment by John Pack Lambert — December 11, 2010 @ 12:28 am

  20. Actually Hiram B. Clawson, J. Willard “Will” Clawson’s father had four wives. However since Emily Augusta Young was only 11 when J. Willard Clawson was born no one has proposed her as J. Willard’s mother. J. Willard was a half brother of Rudger (Judd) Clawson who was for many years a members of the Quorum of the 12.

    Comment by John Pack Lambert — December 11, 2010 @ 12:35 am

  21. My mother was Consuelo Clawson, born in 1909 to John Willard Clawson and Mary Alice Clawson. JWC was son to Hiram B Clawson and Brigham Young’s daughter, Alice. My mother’s brother, Willard Wesley/AKA John Willard, was a playwrite (Cat and the Canary) and an actor. Moroni Olsen is not a relative to this family.

    Comment by Mary Abigail Young Jordan — January 4, 2011 @ 6:35 am

  22. I really like Moroni Olsen. He was a great actor and very handsome.
    I just have a hard time, after having just watched “The Long Long Trailer” on TV, starring Lucy and Desi Arnez. And there he was, smoking a pipe. I also saw another one of his films, where he was smoking a cigarette, while acting as an armed forces officer.
    What’s with that? Is that because “times were different”, back then. He was still venerated by David O. McKay. I don’t get it. It seems to me to have been a real compromise.
    Please don’t deem me judgemental. I just feel a disconnect.

    Comment by Dale Davis — April 1, 2012 @ 6:01 pm

  23. Dale, a lot of his roles were “bad guy” roles, too. Is portraying a bank robber or an adulterer or a murderer or a drunkard okay but portraying a smoker is not? (I haven’t seen “Long Long Trailer” and don’t know what other role you refer to, for the record.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 1, 2012 @ 7:56 pm

  24. Ardis, of course not. But where does the line get drawn for an LDS actor?
    If you get a temple recommend, you can’t lie about the word of wisdom. That’s totally different than playing a bad guy. You’re comparing apples with oranges.

    Comment by Dale Davis — April 1, 2012 @ 8:24 pm

  25. This is a common discussion among LDS theater students — what if the part calls for you to swear? what if the part calls for partial nudity? You can “pretend” to be a bank robber, but it’s actually your real physical self that is swearing, or exposed, or smoking.

    I’m not arguing one way or another, simply pointing out that it’s a bigger question than it might seem at first blush. Any quick answer that you or I might propose is going to be simplistic at best — if it were easy to answer, these debates wouldn’t arise.

    If this is a question that you want to pursue, you might check out the Dawning of a Brighter Day blog, and the AML-List archive (you can subscribe to that list, too) for relevant discussions. The Association for Mormon Letters (the sponsor of both that blog and listserv) have discussions of this kind every once in a while. You could bring up the Moroni Olsen example, and you’d hear about the various arguments one way or another that Mormon artists have proposed to resolve the question.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 1, 2012 @ 8:59 pm

  26. I hate to split hairs, Dale, but are you talking about Mr. Olsen smoking or portraying a smoker? I think there’s a difference, even in Hollywood, Not all things that appeared on-screen to be cigarettes had tobacco in them, as some actors/actresses had allergies or other reasons for not wanting to be involved with tobacco. Then I suppose there’s the related but different moral example issue of appearing on-screen in a way that glamorizes what the audience would assume is tobacco.

    Comment by Bill MacKinnon — April 1, 2012 @ 9:29 pm

  27. Dale, here’s a link to an essay by Orson Scott Card on a closely related question: A Mormon Writer Looks at the Problem of Evil in Fiction.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 1, 2012 @ 11:19 pm

  28. True story:

    Last year a kid from my ward was in the annual high school play. He objected to playing the part of the detective, since the detective goes around attached to a cup of coffee. So instead, he played the murderer.

    Comment by Researcher — April 2, 2012 @ 5:28 am

  29. Wow. Never heard of him before, ignoramus that I am, but obviously know his work in “Snow White” and “Wonderful Life”. Fascinating read- many thanks!

    Comment by Anne (UK) — April 2, 2012 @ 5:30 am

  30. Ardis–I just read this entry thanks to your comments on FB. Nice story. My several-times-removed cousin Leora Thatcher was an actress who, I believe, got her start with the Moroni Olsen Players. She was an English teacher, and when she hit some age–I’m thinking her 40s–she decided she wasn’t getting anywhere as an old maid school teacher, so she headed for Broadway and had a career there of several decades before returning to Cache Valley to retire. Her biggest claim to fame as far as the family was concerned was when she acted opposite Will Geer (The Waltons’ “Grandpa”)in “Tobacco Road.” My sister served her mission in New York, and Leora took her and her companion to lunch at Sardi’s, a hoity-toity restaurant frequented by the theatre crowd. They saw Gig Young and Victor Borge and were totally star-struck. Lots of stories about Leora, whose picture hangs in the gallery at Pioneer Memorial Theatre. If I’m counting the generations right, she was Apostle Moses Thatcher’s granddaughter. Good stories in that connection, too.

    Comment by Elaine T. — April 2, 2012 @ 11:57 am

  31. Really enjoyed reading about Moroni Olsen. So glad to read he was faithful, that always picks me up. Like others my interest was piqued by his name in cast of Notorious and lured to this site by Google. Love the comments and had a great laugh from #28, thanks Researcher, and thank you Ardis.

    Comment by Linda F. — October 31, 2013 @ 4:48 am

  32. The trivia section of Moroni Olsen’s biography mentions that he was a “distant relative of football legend/actor Merlin Olsen”
    http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0647752/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm

    Moroni (b. June 27, 1889 – Nov. 22, 1954) was born in Ogden, UT, while Merlin (b. Sep. 15, 1940 – Mar. 11, 2010) was born in Logan, UT, about 40 miles or so NNE of Ogden.

    Does anyone know of any additional sources in regards to the family relationship between Merlin and Moroni? I just recently discovered that he was the then-uncredited voice actor of the Magic Mirror in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the L.D.S. genealogy records (which are well-known for their extensive family tree records) would probably be the most likely source that would provide more information about this connection…..

    Moroni Olsen: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0647752/
    Merlin Olsen: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0647744/

    Comment by Sterling N. (Oklahoma) — November 17, 2013 @ 10:15 am

  33. Sterling, this is an easy exercise to expand your own online research skills: Go to the LDS database (new.familysearch.org or familysearch.org/tree/) or one of the other large online databases (WorldConnect, or Ancestry) and search for both Merlin Olsen and Moroni Olsen. Their Wikipedia entries give the names of their parents and their birth and death dates if you get so many hits that you need more match points.

    Then note their ancestry, particularly following the Olsen surname. If they’re cousins of any kind, they will have the same grandparents (or great- or great-great- or whatever).

    As you say, the LDS records are likely sources, and you can search as well as anyone else can. Let us know what you find.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 17, 2013 @ 12:13 pm

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